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Monday, August 19, 2013

Sabbatical guilt

Today is the first official day of my sabbatical – woohoo! Of course, one could argue that my sabbatical really began when the spring semester ended but today is the first official day of the fall semester at school so it’s the first day I don’t “have” to be on campus when I otherwise would.

Whenever I tell non-academics about my sabbatical, I feel a little guilty. I know that a lot of my non-academic friends don’t really understand why academics like me even get sabbaticals. After all, it’s not like I’m in archeology or art history or some other discipline where people obviously need the time away from teaching in order to go do field work. I’m not even leaving town this time around. I usually just explain that even if I can get some research done while teaching, I can get a whole lot more done when I have bigger chunks of uninterrupted time.

But I think the main reason I feel guilty is because I know that for me, sabbatical is not really about getting work done (although work WILL get done!) – it’s about mentally and emotionally recharging so I can hopefully return to my job and still love what I do. Seven years ago, during my first sabbatical, I did get completely out of San Diego; basically, I needed to clear my head and figure out whether I really wanted to come back. At that time, I felt completely burnt out but realized it was mostly about the stress of getting tenure, with a big dose of annoying department politics mixed in. I had been focused pretty single-mindedly on the goal of tenure for a pathetically long time, but once I achieved it, I had to stop and really think about whether I actually wanted it, and if I did, if this department was where I wanted to be. Clearly, I decided to stay, but I think that if I had not been able to leave and get some distance so I could objectively think it through, there’s a good chance I would have simply left entirely.

Now I’m sitting here at the start of another sabbatical and in many ways, I feel almost as burnt out as I did seven years ago, though for mostly different reasons. And again, I find myself asking big questions about whether I really want to keep doing what I’ve been doing. This time isn’t about the stress of trying to meet requirements imposed by others; instead, I guess I would say it’s more like a mid-life crisis. There are a lot of things about my job that I love but what about the things I really don’t love? Are those things I can do something about? If so, what do I need to do? If not, is it really the right job for me? Could I accomplish more, be happier, doing something else? What in the world would ‘something else’ look like? Could it mean leaving academia?

I imagine I’ll write more about my thoughts on these questions over the next year. The point I wanted to make here is simply that I feel incredibly lucky that I have the opportunity to indulge in this sort of periodic reflection. And although I’m sure most people probably don’t obsess about this stuff to the extent that I do, it seems to me that all sabbaticals provide some opportunity to re-charge in a way that likely leads to us ultimately feeling happier about our jobs. When I think about how many people are academics for their entire lives, and don’t even want to retire when they have that option, I have to wonder how much sabbaticals contribute to that. What if everyone had the option to periodically step out of their day-to-day jobs, to spend a few months focusing on the aspects of their jobs they enjoy the most, to explore new ideas, or simply to get some distance from co-workers who drive them crazy? This is why I say I feel guilty about my sabbatical – I feel guilty that I get this opportunity when most people don’t. But I don’t think that will stop me from savoring every minute!

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